One thing that can be hard to do as we grow up, move off, and have our own children is developing family holiday traditions. Blending two families means traditions may not be the way your family (or your spouse’s family) have “always done things”. We tend to want to cling to the Christmas traditions we grew up with either out of nostalgia or familial pressure.
Before I continue, I want to say that I debated with myself on writing this article. There are people in our families who disagree with my position on this . . . do I really want to put this out there for strangers to judge me? But then I came across an article on For Every Mom titled “We Stopped Going House to House for the Holidays. Here’s Why.” And I realized that I’m not alone!
Extended family is important and traditions are nice to have. But I am a believer that you don’t have to adhere to every tradition from the days of old — especially when you’re representing TWO families as a married couple (or in the case of divorce, three, or as many as four different families.)
Why do I feel this way?
Because I quite nearly lost my sanity trying to do it myself.
My husband comes from a split home, so we have THREE (large) extended families to keep up with over the holidays. We are blessed that no family lives more than a 45 minute drive from our home. But because they are so close, there is intense pressure to make it to every get-together. Even if we see them regularly, the Christmas pressure (and the ensuing guilt trip) is fierce. After all, we’re just down the road/in the next town over/a half hour away — why can’t we stop by?? So, as a dating couple we did it, and as a married couple we did it. THREE Thanksgiving meals in one day. A minimum of THREE households (sometimes more, depending on what extended family was doing) to visit between Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day.
But our first Christmas as a family of three arrived, when my son was but two months old and I hadn’t slept in what felt like a year.
This is when I said ENOUGH.
It was 9:00 p.m. on Christmas night and we were sitting at my husband’s grandmother’s house. It was going on 12 hours since we had left our house, and this was the fourth house we had been to that day.
Do I even have to tell you how exhausted and miserable I was? I was nursing, I had been up three times the night before, my baby had only napped in the car between this house and that one, and he had been passed around like a football all day; so he was cranky, and I wanted to go home.
This was my son’s first Christmas, and it was by far the most miserable holiday I had ever experienced. (I was also dealing with my mother’s death and the first Christmas without her. If anyone ever needed a “self-care” day, it was me, that day.)
It was 9:00 p.m. and we hadn’t even opened presents yet because we had to wait on everyone to arrive. Everyone who, guess what?, had multiple other households to visit also because at this point most of the grandchildren were married and had children of their own. Since their “tradition” was to open presents from youngest to oldest, my son was first. We opened his presents. Then I told my husband we had to go. We said our goodbyes and left, much to the chagrin of several family members.
We had a long talk on the way home about how we were going to do things differently the following year.
Growing up, my dad was adamant that we didn’t leave the house on Christmas Day.
We visited family all through the month of December. We joked that it was like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” because we were celebrating here and there, with this family and that family.
But Christmas Day? That was for family. And by family, he meant the family that lived under his roof. What’s the fun in opening all your presents if you just have to get up and leave them? That was part of his reasoning. His Christmas joy came from watching my brother and me enjoy the gifts he had provided for us. And to spend some relaxing time with his wife who was not having to cook for a crowd.
So I have many memories of relaxing Christmases, in my pajamas all day, just being with my family.
My husband grew up quite differently. He had to be “shared” on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, not only between his parents’ households, but also multiple grandparents. Neither set of grandparents wanting to relent on “their” traditions, he was subjected to “time limits” on Christmas.
Turns out, he hated it.
So we decided right then and there that it was time to develop Christmas traditions for OUR family.
My husband works in retail, so he almost always works on Christmas Eve. Most years, he barely gets home in time for new Christmas PJs and reading The Night Before Christmas. And while he’s always been off on Christmas Day, he generally has to be right back at work the next day.
We wanted to start our own traditions — our own way of doing things.
So we stay home on Christmas.
This worked out easily for my side of the family. For years, my immediate family (parents and my brother’s family) gathered on Christmas Eve and it worked well for a while. But as the family got bigger (my brother has a lot of kids), it was harder to do this on Christmas Eve. The evening became too rushed because of needing to get all the kids home and in bed. So my dad declared the Sunday before the holiday to be his day. We do this for Thanksgiving AND Christmas (and even Easter!). No discussion is necessary. When I get a new calendar in January, I can flip to November and December and write in the family gatherings. Easy as pie.
It has not been as easy for parts of the family who believe Christmas Day is the only day on which you can celebrate. And sometimes I feel like a black sheep for standing my ground. But you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing about how we’ve spent any of the past nine Christmases. At home. Being a family.
We still want to spend time with our extended families.
Despite putting my foot down and saying, “No, we won’t go,” I try to be accommodating during the season. If anyone in the family wants to have a get-together before Christmas, I will bend over backwards to make sure our schedule allows us to be there. We have done this with different parts of the family over the years, opting to get together during the day on Christmas Eve or a Friday night or Saturday before Christmas. But I can’t help it if other family members won’t bend a little — I stand my ground. If they are getting together on Christmas Day, we won’t be there.
In addition to being accommodating before Christmas, our entire family knows that our door is wide open on Christmas Day. I enjoy cooking, baking, and entertaining, so there is plenty of food — breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. We welcome anyone who wants to come by. (Disclaimer: we will probably be in our pajamas all day!) Grandparents, aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, friends, and neighbors have all popped by before because they don’t even have to ask; they know we’re home and we have food. It’s much easier for those without small children and/or those who don’t have as many Christmas “obligations” to stop by and visit if we just stay still.
Gavin enjoys all his Christmas gifts with no rush to unwrap them so we can get in the car and go. My husband gets a restful day off (that is likely his first and only one all week since he works retail). And I am able to share the best of myself with our guests because I’m not frazzled.
It’s about setting boundaries.
Let’s face it, extended family can be the hardest people in the world to tell “No”. But if you adhere to the principle of “leave and cleave,” then you have to understand that the family under your roof comes first. We love our extended families immensely. And we love how they love us and love our son. But if we don’t set healthy boundaries, then resentment can fester. Trust me, I know. I had a LOT of resentment festering that Christmas of 2008. I had a cranky baby, no sleep, and a broken heart. And literally no one around me could tell I was buckling under the weight of the “expectations” — one more picture of the baby, smile, thank everyone without forgetting anyone so no one feels slighted, squeezing out 10, 15, 20 extra minutes before we have to be at the next house because everyone is saying, “Going so soon?“, hugs, more smiles, more pictures.
I’m saying this loudly for those in the back who need to hear it: You can set boundaries and still love your (extended) family. If a family chooses to be disgruntled by your boundaries, that’s on them, not you.
So if the holidays leave you feeling worn down and joyless . . .
If you dread Christmas Day because it feels more like an episode of The Amazing Race, than Christmas . . .
I want you to know that you are NOT ALONE. I hope that you will explore the idea of setting boundaries this year. Discuss other ways to celebrate with family that won’t leave you feeling completely drained of Christmas spirit.